Zemo is quite possibly one of the most ruthlessly successful Marvel villains ever, often thinking several moves ahead. As we have seen quite spectacularly in Civil War, even when he loses he wins in almost all of his appearances. He is manipulative, calculating and not to be underestimated.
Years later, he begins to recruit a fresh new team of Masters, recruiting a team whom he could either predict or manipulate (but certainly not trust). He recruited Fixer a tech-wizard, Moonstone a super-powered psychologist, Screaming Mimi a pro wrestler turned super-villain, Goliath a super strong giant and the armoured Arthropod The Beetle.
Before he could enact his plan, however the Avengers, Fantastic Four and the Hulk all seemingly died, so instead Zemo decided to fill that void (to his own evil ends) with The Masters Of Evil masquerading as heroes respectively as Citizen V, Techno, Meteorite, Songbird, Atlas and Mach-1.
Their new moniker? The Thunderbolts: Justice like lightning!!
The team’s goal was to fully gain the worlds trust only to use it against them.
Kurt Busiek the creator of the Thunderbolts pulled off most possibly the best marketing coup in modern comics history. With no promotional material released to say they were actually villains until the end of their very first issue, the readers thought they were getting a brand new team of heroes made up of brand new characters. This bait ‘n’ switch made it a uniquely fascinating series to read. Yet as these hardened criminals risked their lives against real threats as they slowly realised that being heroes had finally given them a sense of purpose and the team chose to overthrow Zemo and thwart his plan.
Soon the group would be led by none other than Hawkeye who gave them credibility and training, seeing potential in them, as a reformed criminal himself.
The rest is history…
Clearly one of the most effective themes of Thunderbolts is redemption. Can you do enough good to balance out a lifetime of bad? Does rehabilitation work? Can people really change?
I’ve always been a sucker for stories where the villains are cast as the protagonists and as much as I like the grandiose megalomaniacs and cosmic threats of the Marvel Universe I also like the simple street-level crooks that balance the MU out.
Another fun aspect of the book is the constant question of who the reader can trust; with the majority of the characters being thugs and psychos. The constant back-stabbing and suspicion only makes for a more compelling read.
Lightning doesn’t often strike in the same place twice but the Thunderbolts like many comic teams have been through various incarnations.
One of the more popular interpretations was by Warren Ellis who cast Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin as their leader and added known serial killers such as Bullseye and Venom (but let’s be honest his sanity was always in question).
Not long after that Luke Cage took over, another reformed criminal trying to give others a second chance like he had.
These versions have the most in common with Suicide Squad as these criminals are all controlled via the use of high-voltage or explosive nanites injected into their systems. General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross/Red Hulk formed the team’s most recent iteration but instead of criminals he used a group of anti-heroes to do Black-Ops missions including The Punisher, Deadpool and Elektra (what a shame we’ll probably never see that particular combination on film).
It always seems, however, to come back to Zemo and the original team one way or another. You what they say, “better the devil you know”. At one point Zemo wanted take over the world in order to save it; driven by a twisted sense of altruism he used his villainous underhanded techniques to try and ensure this but ultimately failed. However the originals are almost always considered the best, All of them are currently being reintroduced including Zemo in the comic event “Avengers: Standoff”.
Another comic book trope I love is seeing teams vs teams; be it The Fantastic Four taking on The Frightful Four or The X-Men battling The Brotherhood watching how they match up stirs a certain geeky excitement in me.
I think watching The Avengers (especially under the command of the rogue Captain America seen at the end of Civil War) do battle with a possibly public-approved, government-sanctioned counterpart team who may or may not be insidiously plotting to take over the world would make for a very interesting Avengers sequel indeed!